Among Steve Bannon’s filmmaking oeuvre, two documentaries sought a public TV audience

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By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Steve Bannon) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Steve Bannon at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.

Even as President Trump seeks to end all federal funding to CPB, one of his most infamous aides has firsthand knowledge of the opportunities public media presents to independent filmmakers.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive chair and a ringmaster of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, previously led a very different — some might say alternative — career in the film industry. And two of the films he executive-produced have associations with PBS and CPB.

Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power, a documentary about the Navy officer who oversaw development of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, premiered on PBS in December 2014. And The Last 600 Meters, a documentary about the Iraq War battles of Najaf and Fallujah, was primarily funded by a CPB grant and was originally conceived to air on PBS.

Both films were directed by conservative filmmaker Michael Pack, a former senior VP of TV programming at CPB and founder of the independent company Manifold Productions. Pack’s wife Gina Pack serves as Manifold’s president. The company’s other PBS documentaries include recent specials about George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

The White House did not return Current’s request for an interview with Bannon, who was removed from Trump’s National Security Council April 5 but remains an adviser to the president.

Pack, who is also president of the conservative think tank The Claremont Institute, declined multiple requests from Current for an interview. But he recently praised Bannon’s documentary career, while assailing the documentary landscape as a whole, in a March 10 column for the conservative website The Federalist.

“Documentaries have been the almost exclusive playground of the Left, often the far left,” Pack wrote, accusing film schools, foundations and documentary distributors of liberal “indoctrination.” He expressed hope that having “a documentarian in the White House” would “break their politically correct stranglehold and open a path for young, talented conservative filmmakers.”

A nuclear film

As an exec-producer, Bannon came on board Pack’s films after they had already wrapped production. He had no creative input into the films and was primarily involved in promotion, according to Joe Wiedenmayer, editor on both Rickover and The Last 600 Meters. Wiedenmayer told Current he had no contact with Bannon during his work on the films. Nor did PBS, according to PBS spokesperson Jennifer Byrne.

Bannon has longtime associations with far-right nationalist politics and even refers to himself as an “economic nationalist.” Other films with his involvement have been more explicitly political: The Undefeated is a feature-length endorsement of Sarah Palin, while Clinton Cash investigates Bill and Hillary Clinton’s financial dealings with foreign governments. But that partisanship didn’t carry over to his public TV films, in Wiedenmayer’s opinion.

Admiral Hyman Rickover descends into a circular nuclear reactor shell at the Shippingport Power Facility. (Photo courtesy LIFE magazine, via Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr)

“I didn’t see anything political about Rickover,” Wiedenmayer told Current. “I just saw, what a great character to make a film about. Most people have never even heard of this guy.”

The documentary examines the life and times of the famously blunt and combative Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, longtime director of Naval Reactors, the office overseeing the Navy’s nuclear program. As a Navy captain in the late 1940s, Rickover built up the program from the success of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine.

Still, Rickover does have conservative undertones. It unfolds with an eye toward promoting the benefits of nuclear power in general, with an interviewee stating the technology is “100 percent safe.” The film mocks anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s and narrator Joan Allen sneers at “Hollywood’s politically correct fantasy” — referring to the 1997 remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that imagined a solar-powered Nautilus submarine, rather than the nuclear-powered one of the 1954 adaptation.

But Rickover also paints a picture of a Jewish immigrant who advocated for science education and had a change of heart about his legacy late in life, saying that he wished nuclear power had never been discovered. In short, the film’s protagonist embodied complex, contradictory ideas, not all of which seem to be compatible with Bannon’s ideology.

Bannon isn’t the only big name attached to Rickover. The documentary also stars acclaimed character actor Tim Blake Nelson in dramatic re-enactments, white wig plastered on his head as Rickover berates subordinates and superiors alike in his office over the course of several decades. Narrator Allen is a three-time Oscar nominee. And one of the film’s central interview subjects is former President Jimmy Carter, who served in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program under Rickover and has called him the greatest influence in his life after his parents. (Ironically, Bannon was a naval officer under President Carter and has stated in interviews that his anger at Carter’s tenure pushed him into politics.)

PBS no longer holds the broadcast rights for Rickover, according to Byrne. But DVDs are still available for sale through the PBS online store, and the network also has the film available for digital rental on various platforms.

600 Meters away from air — and growing

Bannon’s other would-be public TV production, The Last 600 Meters, is harder to track down.

Manifold’s website lists the film as having been completed in 2008. That was also the year it won the Founder’s Choice Award at the GI Film Festival, an annual event in Washington, D.C., that celebrates movies about the military. But the website also classifies the film as “upcoming.” Apart from a handful of special screenings over the years, it has yet to be formally released. Manifold did not answer requests for a screener.

The only review available online comes from Breitbart News, published in 2009, three years before Bannon became the site’s executive chair. The rave describes graphic, firsthand accounts of the two bloodiest battles in the Iraq War and calls the film “stunning.”

Wiedenmayer said the film is an on-the-ground account of the battles, told without narration. Much of its footage, including an extended passage devoted to the Second Battle of Fallujah, comes from cameramen who were embedded within the military, though they had not shot the footage specifically for the film.

“It’s going to be on PBS eventually,” Pack said in a 2010 interview with right-wing media-watchdog group Accuracy in Media. “PBS has generously given us a chance to try to raise money to get a theatrical release first, and I would very much like to do that.” But that theatrical release hasn’t yet materialized.

Pack elaborated on the PBS delay in a 2015 interview with Bannon and former Breitbart News Editor-in-Chief Alexander Marlow on SiriusXM Radio’s “Patriot” channel, where he said PBS had initially agreed to show the film but was pushing back on Pack’s inclusion of a graphic beheading scene.

“I’ve been making documentaries for PBS for over 30 years, and I’ve never faced so much resistance and so many roadblocks as I have with 600 Meters,” Pack told Bannon in the interview, according to a Breitbart summary.

Wiedenmayer also said the beheading scene, which incorporated actual YouTube footage of an American being beheaded, was a source of conflict. “I remember having conversations with Michael: ‘Well, we can truncate it. We don’t have to take it all the way through,’” he said, adding that Pack was willing to compromise on the scene. “It’s a really horrendous scene. I mean, I was physically sick having to go through some of the material.”

PBS and Pack had been holding “active discussions related to the film’s content, timeliness, and suitability,” said Byrne, who declined to elaborate on specific issues.

Eventually, according to Wiedenmayer, the discussions appear to have shifted from the content of the film’s beheading scene to the relevance of airing a movie about specific Iraq War battles many years after they had taken place. This was the point at which Bannon came on, to aid in promoting the film.

Pack has not pitched anything new to the network in over a year, according to Byrne. A New Years 2017 greeting from the Pack family to friends and associates, obtained by Current, said Manifold and Claremont had jointly launched production of a biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, but the message did not mention PBS or Bannon.

Both parties have maintained good terms. “PBS has a very positive relationship with Michael Pack,” Byrne said. And in interviews, Pack has expressed gratitude toward PBS and CPB for giving his films a home. Yet when it comes to Bannon, the “documentarian in the White House” has shown no inclination to stick his neck out for public broadcasting.

  • Paul Cook

    Current> “Steve Bannon, …a ringmaster of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement,”

    Nonsense. Fake news. (Gee, I can’t understand why he didn’t respond to your request for an interview)

  • TomKaz

    This article is ridiculous on so many levels.

    1. Headline: “Among Steve Bannon’s filmmaking oeuvre, two documentaries sought a public TV audience” Did Steve Bannon make these documentaries? Did he pitch them to PBS? You would think so after reading this misleading headline.

    2. The author seems to think those who oppose taxpayer funding of PBS means conservative film makers shouldn’t be allowed to have their work aired on their left-wing, taxpayer-funded propaganda playgrounds.

    3. Has anyone at Current ever referred to Valerie Jarrett, Ben Rhodes, or Rahm Emanuel as “infamous aides”?

    4. Has Current ever pointed out producers of other documentaries aired on PBS have had “associations with” far-left political entities?

    5. Exactly who anointed Bannon the “ringmaster of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement”?

    6. Shouldn’t this statement been preceded by a nothing-burger alert? “Wiedenmayer told Current he had no contact with Bannon during his work on the films. Nor did PBS, according to PBS spokesperson Jennifer Byrne.

    • I can’t say that I see the headline gives that impression. It only suggests his involvement in the films and definitely doesn’t convey that he pitched them.

      We’ve definitely pointed out in the past when public TV and radio programs come from a left-leaning perspective — such as, say, “Democracy Now” — though I can’t say for sure we used the “associations with” language.

      • TomKaz

        “It only suggests his involvement in the films”

        No, it misleads the reader as to his “involvement in the films.”:

        “Bannon’s filmmaking oeuvre”

        Oeuvre: “a substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer, an artist, or a composer.

        Bannon did not write, direct, edit, or appear in either of these films:

        “Bannon came on board Pack’s films after they had already wrapped production. He had no creative input into the films… Wiedenmayer told Current he had no contact with Bannon during his work on the films.

        Again, has Current ever mentioned other producers of documentaries as having left-wing political associations?

        • Bannon has written and directed in film, so these works would be considered part of an “oeuvre” (though I admit I used the word somewhat tongue-in-cheek, knowing it sounds more like a word you’d apply to Fellini than Bannon). If he had only ever been an executive producer on two films, I don’t think the word would apply at all. But his work in film extends beyond that.

          “Again, has Current ever mentioned other producers of documentaries as having left-wing political associations?”

          I can’t answer this definitively but feel pretty sure that we have. Sorry but I don’t intend to comb through our archive just to answer this question with certainty. But when we cover public media programming that has a slant, we usually point it out, or at least point out other people’s characterizations as such. Like I said, Democracy Now would certainly fall into this category, because some NPR stations have avoided carrying it citing its lefty progressive tone, and we quoted programmers discussing that.

          • TomKaz

            ” I admit I used the word somewhat tongue-in-cheek, knowing it sounds more like a word you’d apply to Fellini than Bannon”

            Thanks for your honesty. Your headline is misleading as to Bannon’s role in the two films cited in the article.

          • Disagree. Regardless of whether “oeuvre” is tongue-in-cheek, Bannon, as a filmmaker, has one, and these are in it. Is the key thing we’re arguing about here whether a filmmaker’s body of work extends to films on which they serve only as an executive producer? I am arguing yes, though maybe a film-critic egghead would set me straight. (Andrew?)

          • TomKaz

            On the nuclear film Andrew wrote “he had no creative input into the films and was primarily involved in promotion.” Does promoting a film make one a filmmaker? I’m arguing no.

          • Andrew Lapin

            Bannon is a big player in the movies. He has served as director, writer, producer, and executive-producer of various films over the years. When you attach your name to a film in any of these capacities, it is absolutely fair game for an audience to interpret that film as being a part of your larger body of work (or your “oeuvre”). The film community does the same for folks like Steven Spielberg, Judd Apatow, etc. — like Bannon, they have served as “executive producers” on films they otherwise had little involvement in, and it is because they see something in the film that lines up with their sensibilities and that they want to lend their name to. The precise duties of an “executive producer” may change from film to film, but the association the title implies does not.

            And clarifying the exact extent of Bannon’s duties as executive-producer was one of the aims of this article, so I’m glad it achieved that goal!

    • Andrew Lapin

      Hi Tom, let’s see if we can clear some of this up.

      Mike addressed #1. #2 is conjecture on your part, and is not what I “think.” #3 and #4 seem to be false equivalencies. We call Bannon “infamous” because of his ties to the alt-right and the ensuing attention his White House appointment caused. And Bannon is of interest to us not because other producers may have associations with him, but because he HIMSELF is a producer of public TV documentaries who is also in a White House that is trying to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting. That is an interesting dynamic. None of the former Obama staffers you named, for example, have ever produced any public TV productions, so I’m not sure why we would focus on them in the same way.

      #5: (This is both for you and Paul Cook below.) Bannon has anointed himself a leader of the alt-right movement; he has proudly declared Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right,” and nearly every expert in the field of media notes that he is one of the movement’s most prominent figures. I used “ringmaster” because the most in-depth features that have been written about Bannon tend to describe Breitbart and various alt-right events as a circus-like environment — there’s usually a sense of gleeful controlled chaos, with many plates spinning at once, and Bannon himself sits at the center. Example: https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2015-steve-bannon/

      Also, Current follows AP Style guidelines, and in November the AP said this about the alt-right: “Whenever ‘alt-right’ is used in a story, be sure to include a definition: ‘an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,’ or, more simply, ‘a white nationalist movement.'” Hence my use of the descriptor “white nationalist.” https://blog.ap.org/behind-the-news/writing-about-the-alt-right

      #6: Just because Bannon did not have contact with the films’ production teams or with PBS does not mean his role on the films isn’t worth our time to explore. The article doesn’t purport to find a “smoking gun”; we’re simply interested in laying out Bannon’s work in public TV, because his own stature and the White House’s current position regarding public broadcasting makes those associations relevant for our readers.

      Thanks for reading.

      • TomKaz

        #1. See my response to Mike.

        #2 What is the point of the article then? Either Bannon and his associates are hypocrites (the drift I get from your article), or Bannon was giving PBS the middle finger, pressuring them to air documentaries on subjects they loath.

        #3 No false equivalencies, unless the only way to can earn the label “infamous” on Current is to a) be a White House adviser, b) have ties to the alt-right, AND c) had a history of producing films. The Obama staffers I listed are infamous for other reasons.

        #4 How is this a false equivalency? You didn’t answer the question.

        #5 Over year ago Milo Yiannopoulos wrote “The alternative right, more commonly known as the alt-right, is an amorphous movement.” Amorphous. And although Bannon said Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right”, the MSM has yet to produce any evidence that Bannon is himself is a racist or “white nationalist”. Unless of course supporting the enforcement of our immigration laws makes one a racist, which many on the left believe. In an interview with the WSJ, Bannon rejected what he called the “ethno-nationalist” tendencies of some in the movement, said “It’s not that some people on the margins, as in any movement, aren’t bad guys — racists, anti-Semites”, “the black working and middle class and the Hispanic working and middle class, just like whites, have been severely hurt by the policies of globalism”, and “I was the one who said we are going to Flint, Michigan, we are going to black churches in Cleveland, because the thrust of this movement is that we are going to bring capitalism to the inner cities,”. He doesn’t sound like a white nationalist to me.

        Btw, the AP definition is severely lacking. It would be more accurate to say ‘white nationalists are an off-shoot of the alt right, and the alt-right is an off-shoot of conservatism.’

        #6: What exactly was Bannon’s role on the films again?

        • Andrew Lapin

          #2: The point of the article doesn’t have to be one of these two things. We thought it was interesting in and of itself that Bannon has had a role in producing two public TV films, and we wanted to explore that further.

          #3: They may be infamous for other reasons, but again, since they have had little associations with public broadcasting, Current would not have had cause to write about them to the same extent.

          #4: Mike and I have answered this.

          #5: I’m not claiming Bannon himself is a white nationalist. I’m saying he is a self-described leader of the alt-right, which in turn has been defined as a white nationalist movement. I’m also not going to defer to Milo Yiannopoulos over the AP.

  • We need this docs for worldwide streaming!!!